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Athletics: Ho ho ho: Thank you, Mom

He's back.

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Mike Bialka

NORTH POLE — I’m back by popular demand after getting run over by a reindeer in 2020.

Popular demand means my mom probably called and asked the Brainerd Dispatch to resurrect Sports Santa after a 1-year hiatus. So thanks Mom.

My 2021 area sports highlights included watching Brainerd High School graduate Joe Haeg nearly catch a touchdown pass from the GOAT, Tom Brady, in the Tampa Bay Buccaneers Super Bowl victory over the Kansas City Chiefs in January. Joe was wide open and appeared that he would make the catch but unfortunately, he got drilled and the ball popped loose.

Haeg, who signed with the Pittsburgh Steelers in the offseason, is in his sixth NFL season. He played for the Indianapolis Colts from 2016-19 before spending last season in Tampa.

In the spring, I was fortunate to coach baseball at the Brainerd High School sophomore level. Our Warriors finished with a .500 record and hopefully, we groomed some young men to make an impact at the Warrior varsity level in 2022. It was a riot to coach again with Derek Owen who has resigned as the head sophomore coach and should pursue a career in stand-up comedy.

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Football season presented another opportunity to keep stats for the Warrior varsity. I just love the game and I love keeping stats. There’s just something about Friday Night Lights. I’ve been invited back next season by Warriors head coach Jason Freed so I must be doing something right.

Also in the fall, I was fortunate to serve on the planning committee for the celebration of Ron Stolski’s distinguished career as head coach of the Warriors. About 400 people showed up for the afternoon including some of Stolski’s childhood classmates from Minneapolis and college classmates from Macalester to those who played for him at Kensington, Slayton, Princeton and Park Center in addition to Brainerd.

The event had been postponed a few times due to the ongoing pandemic. But finally, the old ball coach received the recognition he richly deserves. Stolski finished his 58-year career with the second-most victories (389) in Minnesota State High School League football history. He remains the longest-tenured head coach in MSHSL football history.

Incorporated with Stolski’s recognition was a Warrior football alumni event at the Northern Pacific Center. About 100 former Warriors showed up to reconnect with former teammates and all kinds of memorabilia were auctioned off or for sale.

Freed has worked tirelessly behind the scenes to procure more than $300,000 to renovate and modernize the Warrior Strength Center at BHS. All funds were raised via individual donors, local businesses and organizations.

The current strength room will be transformed into a state-of-the-art performance and training center that will elevate the training of Warrior athletes and students while maximizing existing space. The revitalized space will help enhance programming, increase space and utilize cutting-edge equipment. The renovated facility opens Jan. 5, 2022, to BHS students and athletes.

Another fall event was a 48th BHS class reunion, the same day as a Staples-Motley Hall of Fame event where I had a chance to reconnect with former Cardinal David Joerger, now assistant coach of the Philadelphia 76ers, and his brother, Blaine, one of the most talented basketball players I ever had the privilege to cover or watch. Prayers for healing go out to David who left the 76ers in November to undergo chemotherapy and radiation treatments for a form of head and neck cancer.

One of last winter’s highlights was the promotion of BHS grad Cole Smith by the Nashville Predators. Smith played in one NHL game last season, then was returned to the minor leagues. This December the Predators again summoned Smith to the NHL due to several players, coaches and staff in COVID-19 protocol.

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Smith is the third BHS alumnus to play in the NHL. Josh Archibald of the Edmonton Oilers, currently recovering from COVID-19, was the second. Carl Sneep, who starred at Boston College after graduating from BHS, was the first with the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Two other former Warriors deserve mention.

Former Warrior coach and educator, and former state representative, John Ward, is on an incredible health journey. John underwent surgery for esophageal cancer in November. He has been in and out of Mayo Clinic in Rochester undergoing numerous surgeries, procedures and tests. In addition, open-heart surgery possibly looms in the future. Godspeed my friend. He and his family, especially his wife and caregiver, Sally, need our prayers.

Steve Nunnink, long-time Brainerd coach and strength and conditioning guru, died earlier this month. What a Warrior he was. “Squatty Body 2,” his nickname when he was a lineman at the University of North Dakota for his short, stout stature, was in and out of rehab and hospitals for 18 years since suffering a brain aneurysm during the football season opener in 2003.

Steve’s wife, Randi, was a rock by his side, caring for him all these years. She deserves a medal. She’s a true Warrior.

I wish you a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year. And may we get through this pandemic.

Mike Bialka, Sports Santa, can be followed on Twitter at www.twitter.com/mikebialka.

Related Topics: LOCAL SPORTS
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